Through my letter box there comes by serendipity a review copy of Stephanie Victoire’s fairy tales for grown ups, ‘The Other World, It Whispers’.  And though I didn’t know I asked for it I am very pleased to get it, because there’s a definite affinity between museums and fairy tales that makes me a big fan of them both.

What they share in common is a willingness to invest the world of things with a kind of magic.  When it comes to fairy tales think of the little red dancing shoes or Aladdin’s lamp or the tinderbox – all things that have a magical power.  And when it comes to museums, think how visitors are charmed by the magical power of objects, because of the illusion they give us of time travel, of going back in time.  It’s true that museums usually see themselves as dealing in everything that’s plain and practical.  But museum visitors are another matter. For many of them museums are about awe and beauty, the magic of time travel, those transcendental moments when you think, ‘Ah, this was made by someone who lived and died hundreds of years ago.’

Museums and fairy tales both deal in the magic of Thing Worlds.

But it is not easy to write a good fairy tale.  You have to be able to breathe a kind of numinous significance into a place or a thing or a moment in time, to invest them with some kind of indefinable meaning that you feel like a breath on the back of your neck.  And Stephanie Victoire is very good at this.  She’s an economical writer, building up her effects quickly and with conviction.  She knows how to get the reader to swallow a huge fiction by getting it over in the first paragraph, how to cast a spell over the reader by summoning up an atmosphere that feels strange and off-kilter, and how to tuck a lifetime of stories into the structure of one short story. I loved ‘The Earth-Bound Express’, for its cool, compelling imagining of the voyage of the souls, after death, between lives.  And I loved ‘The Cemetery Pilgrimage’, whose protagonist is stealing genius from dead bodies in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise.  The numinous objects in her stories are snowflakes, axes, the statue of a lover, an animal mask – all bathed in an unearthly light.

But what about museums? How do they invest their artefacts with a larger than life meaning?  Well, sometimes the artefacts, having huge personalities, do the work themselves.  The Chinese Terracotta Warriors, displayed for the First Emperor exhibition at the British Museum, were like this.  However you laid them out their off-beat personalities shone out.

But other times it’s the skill of the museum designer that invests an object with a powerful meaning, by the way that he or she places it, or bathes it in light, or the colours it is set against.

And if there is one museum that achieves this oddball, fairytale strangeness from beginning to end it is the Musee de la Chasse in Paris (which we reviewed here two years ago). It tells the story of the medieval forest, a lost and mysterious world both savage and beautiful, that was inhabited by Virgins and haunted by wolves and unicorns.  As with any good fairy tale (Stephanie Victoire’s for instance) it has its own distinctive atmosphere, and as with any good fairy tale (Stephanie Victoire again) I can’t quite pin down how it works, just that it does.

Stephanie Victoire, ‘The Other World, It Whispers’, published by Salt. On 15th November 2016

La Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature, 62 Rue des Archives, 75003 Paris, France

Love In The Museum

Rosa Campbell

I went to the Museum of Broken Relationships (MOBR) when everything was boiling.  The Zagreb summer, the fights we were having, a rolling, endless boil between us.  I went to the Museum to be immersed in other people’s difficulties in love;  for comfort and solidarity and I found this, but I also found insights into the meaning of time and of objects in love too.

The MOBR is a museum of objects, each representing a romantic relationship that has ended. There are objects you might expect;  wedding dresses hang sadly, a Valentine’s day bear holding a red ‘I love you’ heart is accompanied by the note ‘LIES DAMN LIES! This is just what you think when you’re young and naive!’ There are some more unexpected objects too; a garden gnome with a bashed-in face and a large, blue sharply bladed axe, which the broken-hearted used ‘every day’ to

‘axe one piece of her furniture.  Two weeks after she left she came back for the furniture.  It was neatly arranged into small heaps and fragments of wood.  She took that trash and left my apartment for good.’

The objects at the museum are all contemporary, due to the collection being made up of recent donations but we have known for a long time that objects are important in the romantic relationship.

Artist Leanne Shapton in her fictitious auction catalogue tells the story of Hal and Lenore’s relationship through objects.  Shapton and the Museum of Broken Relationships expose the particular way objects are fetishised in love, where to fetishise means to give the object symbolic value which transcends its ‘real’ attributes (as Marx knew).  To be clear: these objects are already loaded with meaning, already fetishised as commodities.  The porcelain dog set already represents a class of people who have knowingly ironic vintage home ware in their Brooklyn lofts.  But Shapton loads them with something specific to the romance between Hal and Lenore and it’s up to us, as readers, to decipher the way the dogs have been specifically fetishised between them and given a place in the story of their romance, reaching far beyond their painted-on smiles and shiny glazed tails.

We can relate to Shapton’s book and the MOBR precisely because when in love we fetishise the objects related to our lover to the extent that the objects stand in for the one that we love.

Sometimes these objects are banal, or rubbishy or a bit disgusting, like the pair of pants in the MOBR or a brush clotted with hair in Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel ‘Patience’.  The protagonist will settle for sticking his nose in the hairbrush of his beloved, in place of her.  In love, other objects, unattached to the love relation, usually weighty with symbolic value, hardly matter.  In my case I like art and books, and I fetishise these too, usually.  Except when I’m in love and alone;  then only the things of my beloved – a cinema ticket stub left by my bed,, an old woolen navy jumper – have any significance.  I’m bored of Miro, tired of the new Granta magazine, which lies unloved beside me. This is what Barthes means when he says ‘I am dead to all sensuality except that of the charming body’ and what Sinead O’Connor means when she says ‘I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant, but nothing compares to you.’

And speaking of being alone, time too is different in love.  Usually when I visit a museum – especially the big hitters like the British Museum or the Imperial War Museum, time is presented as linear, progressive and regular.  These institutions tell us that we can learn from the past and try to caution us against repeating historical mistakes. But as the Museum of Broken Relationships shows, time in love is not linear.  The objects here represent a series of messy endings and circles, of people ‘seeing all the consequences looming and doing something anyway.’  (Chris Kraus).

Neither does time march regularly in love and this is reflected in the collection of love letters sent during war time, held by the Imperial War Museum.  Many of these moving and intimate letters speak of the soldier’s hell of waiting for post from lovers, the joyful speed at which letters are read and digested and so the way this joy is then quickly replaced again by waiting. There is nothing even and uniform about time in love.  As the letters show, anxious waiting slows time down, whilst time spent in passionate intimacy with another makes time fly.

I went to the Museum of Broken Relationships that summer in Zagreb, to get some perspective beyond us.  And I got it, in the form of a difficult question:  if time is not linear, progressive or regular in love, is it ever?  What do you think?

Books I had in mind and referenced when writing this piece were –

‘Important Artefacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry,’ by Leanne Shapton

‘A Lovers Discourse,’ by Roland Barthes

‘I love dick,’ by Chris Kraus

‘Granta Magazine, 96,’ ‘Loved Ones’

‘Hot Milk,’ by Deborah Levy

‘Ugly Feelings,’ by Sian Ngai

‘Monkey Grip,’ by Helen Garner

‘Marx on the Commodity:  https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/commodity.htm (taken from Capital, Vol 1)